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The dragon’s tryst with happiness
Karma Phuntsho, May 16, 2013
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No story of Bhutan could end without the mention of Gross National Happiness, which is increasingly becoming the trademark of Bhutan to the outside world. A great deal has already been written on GNH and can be easily found online. Thus, apart from an introductory note on the topic, there is no need for a detailed account or analysis here. The concept has been variably described by its advocates as a development philosophy, guiding principle, overarching goal of development and, lately, as a new development paradigm. It is currently being used as the overall framework for Bhutan’s development programmes and increasingly being presented to the outside world as a new model of development, which takes into account many other factors influencing human well-being beside economic growth.

The concept is commonly attributed to the 4th King, whose kaleidoscopic view of a holistic human development it is suppose to capture. It is commonly thought that the 4th King extemporaneously coined the term in response to a question from a journalist concerning Bhutan’s GNP some time in 1979. His reply ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product’ has since gained proverbial status and forms the locus classicus of the entire GNH discourses and discussions which are in vogue today. The earliest printed discussion we have is a Financial Times article in 1987 from which we know that GNH remained the underlying ethos for the 4th King’s approach to development and modernization. The King was convinced that Bhutan’s aim of development should not be merely economic prosperity but contentment and happiness ‘which political stability, social harmony and Bhutanese culture and way of life’. However, the exposition of GNH as a national goal of development began to emerge only towards the end of the twentieth century. The rise of the current prime minister, Jigme Y Thinley as a leading statesman and the establishment of Centre for Bhutan studies as a government think tank facilitated the promotion of GNH as a national intellectual discourse.

It is a simple and well-known fact that happiness is desired university. Since very ancient times, the pursuit of happiness has remained a central concern of human existence. This is particularly the case with the Buddhist tradition prevalent in Bhutan, in which happiness is emphatically sought as the ultimate goal of all worldly and spiritual endeavours. It is very common to hear in Bhutan the murmurs of daily prayers of all sentient beings by both young and old. Thus, there is nothing new or revolutionary in the idea of seeking happiness. Yet, it was visionary for a monarch to crystallize the ideas and practices which remained diffused in the society into a formal national policy in order to guide development programmes. The 4th King was farsighted and judicious enough to no lose sight of the ultimate goal in the course of the frantic process of modernization.

However, despite of the pervasive presence of happiness in sprite and practice in Bhutan’s communities, the notion of the GNH as technical concept was totally new to the people. To begin with, the term Gross National Happiness was coined from the economic term Gross National Product, which most Bhutanese have not heard of, let alone understand. Moreover, there was no terminology for it in Dzongkha or other Bhutanese languages and the rough equivalent, Gyalyong Gakyi Pelzom, was coined only at the turn of this century. When this was first introduced, most people had no clue while some thought it was a new government department. It was also confusing because the term sounds like a feminine name. On being asked for his take on it by a radio journalist, a man replied: ‘from what I hear, she seems beautiful but I have not yet seen her.’

This, however, changed quickly as the concept became a hot topic of discussion for the nation’s literati by the end of the twentieth century. The discussion was mainly triggered be the new exposition of GNH by Jigme Y Thinley, in whom the concept found a highly willing, capable and eloquent advocate. He took the construction of GNH edifice further by providing it four concrete pillars of socioeconomic development, good governance, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. He launched this framework in 1988 during the Millennium Meeting for Asia and the Pacific in Seoul. Since then, GNH has been discussed and debated in no less than five major conference and several publications. Leading development specialists and economists have taken interest in it. The Centre for Bhutan Studies under the stewardship of Dasho Karma Ura was put in charge of developing GNH index and indicators to make it accountable and assessable and internationally applicable.

The Centre for Bhutan studies took GNH to the next level by breaking down the condition for collective happiness and developing a complex and comprehensive set of seventy indicators under nine domains of psychological well- being, living standard, good governance, health, education, time use, community vitality, culture diversity and ecological resilience. The conventional econometrics, which measured a country’s progress only through its economic growth and consumption were not sufficient to capture the actual status of happiness. This is because external material comfort does not necessarily lead to internal happiness. The main thrust of the GNH is to include all important social culture, economic and ecological factors determining human happiness, which is not reflected by the GDP or even covered by the UN’s Human Development Index. It works with the premise that happiness is a collective public good and it can be sought through public policies.

The index and its method of measuring the state of happiness in the society are still in the process of being tried and tested in Bhutan. Two rounds of nationwide surveys have been conducted so far. Meanwhile, the GNH policy is also being experimented in practice through the adoption of a screening tool by the country’s main planning authority now renamed the GNH commission. Every government project is in principle assessed for its GNH worthiness using a screening chart before it is approved.

Despite these attempts to make GNH philosophically and econometrically tenable, the initiative is not without problems and criticisms. Most people argue that happiness is a state of mind and an internal subjective experience. What triggers the experience of happiness differs from person to person depending on their cultural background, individual interest and often on the point of comparison. Any attempt on the part of a state or government to provide, let alone impose, a uniform value or definition of happiness is futile. What the state must create are the conductive conditions required for the experience of happiness. While many agree that GNH is a useful framework for guiding development and giving it a sense of direction, they argue that for a developing country like Bhutan the government’s priority must be in improving the basic conditions for happiness rather than excessively talking about happiness itself. These critics point out that even today over 20 percent of the population live under the national poverty line, governance and public services are far from efficient, youth delinquency and crimes are rising while the cultural heritage is eroding and the economy is ever more precarious with too much dependence on imported goods. At such times, GNH dangerously veers to the point of being an ideological distraction from the real issues and problems. If the 4th King introduced GNH so that Bhutan will not miss the forest for trees, there is now risk of missing the trees for the forest.

Being a misplaced priority or distraction is not the only problem associated with GNH. It is an initiative to define and measure happiness, which is essentially non-quantifiable and immeasurable. Even many of the conditions for happiness are qualitative states and non quantifiable. Many of its critics note that happiness may be best left to the individuals and that the state should focus on improving the basic needs of the people. Furthermore, it is not realistic to seek all components of GNH as some of them are not consistent with each other but are even mutually exclusive. For instance, the many symbols of hierarchy in the name of culture are not consistent with the egalitarian outlook required for good democratic governance. Similarly, the promotion of tourism for economic benefit may lead to an erosion of culture. Yet, the most serious question its critics raise relates to the commitment of its advocates beyond mere rhetoric. Questions are asked about how much do some of those who preach GNH sincerely take it to their heart and practice it? There is a perception among some quarters that GNH is merely an intellectual occupation for the elites, who enjoy all the benefits in life, and that it is a catchy branding for promoting Bhutan to the outside world while the ordinary and the poor citizens struggle for their daily needs. No doubt, many questions are raised and GNH is also being increasingly bandied by the dissatisfied citizens to verbally bash the government and leaders for any failure. If it is an ideal the leaders have chosen for the country, they are now being earnestly expected to live up to it, however lofty it may be.

GNH has, however, captured the imagination of many developed countries, which are suffering from the affects of the recent economic recession and are disillusioned by the current economic model of measuring progress through growth and consumption. Many countries are now turning to Bhutan for a new order of life balancing material comfort with spiritual well-being and economic growth with ecological and cultural integrity. In 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution initiated by Bhutan to place happiness on the global agenda. A high-level meeting was held in April 2012 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to draw a road map for GNH as a new global economic paradigm. In the past decade, Bhutan has been itself voted as the happiest country in Asia and the eighth and thirteenth happiest in the world according to two separate surveys conducted by institutions in the UK. Today, even while young Bhutanese eye an opportunity to travel to the US and engage in manual jobs to earn quick bucks, the rest of the world is looking up to Bhutan as a happy country-a postmodern Shangrila. It is indeed a very lofty position to reach and perhaps even loftier to maintain in the changing fortunes of time.

This article is excerpt from the book 'The History of Bhutan' published by Random House India

Dr Karma Phuntsho is one of the leading scholars in Bhutan and teaches Buddhism and Bhutan studies in the country and abroad.

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